Wander deep into the heart of historic South Bombay.
The neighborhood of Bhuleshwar, tucked deep into the heart of historic South Bombay, is a world unto itself, a sacred and vibrant maze of temples and rest-houses, animal shelters and markets. A walking tour there can, at times, feel almost like a spiritual quest, filled with worship, rest, and food. Expect to stray (as all seekers do) into wadas and wadis and gully-guchis (courtyard complexes and winding lanes), relying on locals—and some surprisingly solid guidance from Google maps—to direct you back on the right path. Straying by ‘drinking’ or ‘flesh eating,’ as the marble plaques of the century-old rest-houses will inform you, is strictly forbidden. Populated by Gujaratis and Jains, this is a neighborhood of devout vegetarians.
Begin your walk in the morning with blessings at the Shree Bhuleshwar Temple. Dedicated to the Lord Shiva, who in his benevolent avatar becomes ‘Bhola Ishwar’ (Lord of the Innocent), this temple gave its name to the entire neighborhood. The temple complex itself has all the charms of a settlement that grew organically with its deceptively small entrance, winding internal passages, and numerous temples and shrines, dedicated to the pantheon of gods affiliated with Shiva: his consort Parvati, their son Ganesh, and an incarnation of Parvati called Shitala, who both causes and cures small pox. Be sure to buy a small basket of flowers, milk, and rice for about 20 rupees on the way in and offer it to the deities with the assistance of the priest. When entering or exiting the complex, notice the nagarkhana, the small balcony-like structure above the entrance, where musicians would play from dawn to dusk as part of the temple rituals.
Leaving the temple complex, head east on Shiek Menon Street, crossing the morass of Kalbadevi Road, to Hotel Shree G. Bhagat Tarachand for a hearty north Indian breakfast. Several places called Hotel Tarachand have sprung up nearby, but the oldest, G. Tarachand, established in 1875, is still the best for hot parathas filled with aloo (potato), mooli (radish) or gobi (cauliflower), all washed down with a cool lassi, served sweet or salty.
Freshly fortified, walk around the corner to the Shree Mumbadevi Temple, dedicated to the goddess Amba, worshipped principally by the salt collectors and fishermen who were the original inhabitants of Bombay’s seven islands. When the government decided to change the city’s name from Bombay they chose Mumbadevi as its new namesake.
The most popular temple in the area, the Shree Mumbadevi Temple is heavily guarded with security checks, long queues, and cameras. Rather than linger in the central courtyard, visit the small Shree Jagdish Temple to the right, which has a striking, big-eyed image of Jagannath, a representation of the Lord Krishna, and the origin of the English word juggernaut, introduced to the language by the festival in the eastern state of Orissa where the image of the god is paraded through town on a giant wagon (historically, devotees would throw themselves under the wagons immense spiked wheels). From the Jagdish shrine, go through the security exit at the end of the courtyard to the open space that would once have looked over the temple’s tank, a natural pond. Here you will get the best views of the elaborate façade and also come across the quaint basement-level rest houses, divided by region, for devotees from different parts of India.
Well into the 20th century, both the Bhuleshwar and Mumbadevi Temple complexes would have featured large ponds where worshippers would take a ritual dip before taking darshan (or sight) with the deity. As the city expanded and neighborhoods like Bhuleshwar became increasingly dense, those ponds—called ‘tanks’—were filled in.
A third lost tank now gives its name to one of the neighborhood’s most important landmarks: the traffic circle known as C.P. Tank, which marks Bhuleshwar’s northern boundary (from here, it’s a ten or fifteen minute walk north up C.P. Tank Road and through the narrow, pungent lanes of Null and Bhendi Bazaars to reach the famous antiques market of Chor Bazaar, but that’s another walk for another time). Built by the philanthropist Cowasji Patel, who patronized the expansion and upkeep of the tank to keep his locality in water, the tank is, like many other landmarks in Bombay, best known in its abbreviated form.
Philanthropy in the area has flourished ever since. Around the C. P. Tank circle are a number of baugs—community centers and rest-houses—such as Hira Baug, Krishna Baug, Morar Baug and Madhav Baug, built for members of the Jain, Lohana, and Bania merchant communities, respectively. Wander into the baugs and find the marble plaques engraved with details from each institution’s founding. Notice the grill work at Hira Baug, with the institution’s name cast on each grill (an early exercise in branding), and the plaque in Gujarati at Morar Baug (1912), which pegs the precise expenses of construction at 97,977 rupees, 2 annas and 3 paise.
Save visiting Madhav Baug for last. Before you enter its imposing gates, stop for a meetha paan at Gauri Shankar’s right outside. Founded in 1920, and decorated with fine woodwork and mirrors, the late Mr. Shankar’s paan shop lives up to its signboard’s claim to being ‘Mumbai’s High-Class Betel Merchant.’ Enter Madhav Baug, the largest of the community centers, which accommodates a hall, temple, school, library, and cow shelter on its premises. The Baug and the steps that once led down into the Mumbadevi Tank are two among the many gifts of the Kapole Bania community, who originally hail from the city of Surat to the north.
Ask a local for directions through the winding the passages that connect Madhav Baug to the Bombay Panjrapole, the city’s oldest animal shelter. The Panjrapole has been serving distressed animals for 183 years, beginning with stray dogs, though since the early 20th century it’s principally catered to cows. Buy some feed (a ladoo and grass for about 30 rupees) from the ornate reception counters and go meet the animals.
Make your way back to Bhuleshwar Road, visiting the other temples and rest-houses you come across along the way, beginning with the Shree Ram Temple and continuing through a dense cluster of shrines devoted to Lords Krishna and Ram. By now you should be ready for a feast worthy of the gods at Shree Thaker Bhojanalay, a family-run restaurant that, for the last 73 years, has served arguably the finest vegetarian thali in town: an unending litany of Gujarati snacks, dals, vegetables, sweets, and drinks. If you’re here in the winter, try and come on a Tuesday, Thursday or Sunday to sample undhiyu, a decadent Gujarati specialty made of root vegetables, fresh pulses, young garlic, and coconut oil.
The pace of your tour will be significantly slower after the meal. Stroll into Swadeshi Market on Kalbadevi Road, where the gullies (lanes) lined with cloth shops are ideal for wandering in a post-meal stupor. Further south on Kalbadevi Road is Bhangwadi, once populated by a profusion of shops selling bhang, an intoxicating beverage of ground cannabis, milk, and spices, believed to be sacred to the Lord Shiva. You will spot Bhangwadi from its imposing façade with a large elephant and the maxim ‘Wisdom Above Riches’ engraved on its decorative howdah (the name for the aristocratic carriages once settled on the animals’ backs). The façade is from complex’s more recent past, when it was turned into a public theatre.
At the southern edge of Bhuleshwar, you’ll find yourself in easy striking distance of some of the city’s most interesting neighborhoods. If you still have some energy, you can wander south into Dhobi Talao, home to several of the city’s most atmospheric Irani Cafés (stop at Kyani & Co. for an Irani chai to recharge), then east past the elegant facades of St. Xavier’s College and the towering onion dome of the Bombay Municipal Corporation building, en route to Victoria Terminus (VT), where you can catch a cab or a train (and, on a quiet afternoon, maybe even a post-prandial nap) to wherever it is you’re calling home.